A peculiar theme is emerging on the Gore announcement tour: The psychological liberation of the vice president. On last night’s flight from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Manchester, N.H., campaign chairman Tony Coelho spent half an hour holding forth to the press scrum about this subject. The key purpose of Gore’s announcement, Coelho tells us, is for the veep to “unshackle himself from everything else that is going on and become a candidate.” The veep, Coelho continues, is “getting comfortable” with his candidacy. He is learning how to be himself–and how to define himself to the world–after years of sublimating his needs to his president’s.
This morning, a Gore staffer hits the theme again, telling me that the tour signifies Gore’s emergence from the shadows of the two men who have dominated his life: his father, who recently died, and President Clinton. “This is the first time he is giving a major speech on his own, without either of those two fathers,” the staffer says. Gore’s team naturally wants to humanize the vice president, but maybe this is a bit much. I get almost embarrassed listening to Coelho and the staffer talk about Gore this way. Gore, after all, is not a tear-shedding, heart-sharing Clinton. The vice president is a dignified man. I don’t want to hear about his emotional “unshackling.”
The campaign is only two-days-old, but it has already settled into a rhythm. Gore’s stump speech applause lines are stuck in my head. His theme song, Shania Twain’s cheery “Rock This Country,” has already passed from novelty to familiarity to annoyance. (Though it certainly outclasses Clinton’s 1992 music, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”)
The day starts with a town hall meeting at Manchester’s Hesser College. Gore uses the occasion to outline his five-point plan for the high-tech economy. The two most interesting points: more R&D tax credits and a new 401(j) plan that workers can use to fund career training. Gore did a similar town hall meeting on education in Iowa City yesterday afternoon, and it’s a surprisingly good format for him. He tends to holler at large crowds, but speaks calmly to small ones like these, fielding audience questions with unexpected ease. He can’t match Clinton’s empathy (thank God!), but he is superb at matching the questions to his own policy proposals.
In this event, as in all the events on this campaign swing, Gore implicitly distances himself from the president–promising to bring “my own values” to the presidency–and implicitly whacks George W. Bush–blasting those who propose “crumbs of compassion.” Notably absent from his speeches is Bill Bradley, the person whom Gore is actually running against. Gore’s staffers insist that they are competing against Bradley, but this trip sure feels more like a general election campaign against Bush than a primary fight with Dollar Bill.
After Hesser, we fly to New York City, the final stop before we return to D.C. tonight. (A brief word about campaign flying: The press plane is a regular Midwest Express aircraft staffed by regular Midwest Express pilots and attendants, but it is strangely and wonderfully immune to FAA regulations. Carry-on items are not safely stowed in the overhead compartments or underneath the seat in front of us. Overheard compartments are not closed. Seatbacks and tray tables are never returned to their upright and locked positions. Seatbelts are not fastened, securely or otherwise, at take off, at landing, or in turbulence. Any or all electronic devices are not turned off during takeoff and landing. In fact, any and all electronic devices are on during take off and landing. As we goes wheels-up from Manchester, all three reporters in the row behind me are talking on their cell phones, and one is plugging away on his laptop. This is an airline passenger’s bill of rights that I would joyfully endorse.)
The New York leg reveals the obesity and staginess of the modern presidential campaign. Gore has scheduled an open-air rally for Wall Street at 1 p.m. This requires: paralyzing La Guardia Airport for 15 minutes so that the veep’s plane can land; clogging traffic across Queens, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan with a half-mile-long motorcade from LaGuardia to downtown; blocking several square blocks around the New York Stock Exchange for the event itself; and then snarling traffic from downtown through midtown so the motorcade can ferry Gore (and us) to a hotel. (As we drive through Manhattan I detect pure rage in the faces of the delayed pedestrians and drivers. A colleague suggests that the Gore campaign decorate the windows of motorcade cars with “Bush for President” signs.)
Gore’s stump speech, held right outside the New York Stock Exchange, is a desultory performance. It begins to drizzle halfway through. The crowd is huge but mostly silent. (The biggest applause line is his call for the House to close the gun-show loophole.)
The crowd’s indifference does not much matter , because this is an event staged entirely for television. There is a grand stone building behind Gore. A dozen American flags ring the podium. The folks directly in front of Gore–the only ones visible to the TV cameras–cheer hard and wave blue “Gore 2000” signs. As Gore approaches the microphone, this sea of signs rolling beneath him, I hear the Gore staffer next to me say to himself, “That’s a great shot.” It is, and that, of course, is all the campaign really wanted, a great visual for tonight’s New York local news and CNN.
The campaign also registers its requisite Spanish soundbite. The Spanish sound bite is going to be de rigueur in the 2000 campaign, as essential as a Web page. Gore’s stump contains not one but two Spanish passages, a phrase at the start and a full paragraph at the end (the “futuro” of “nuestras familias” and “niños “). The passages were incongruous during yesterday’s speech in Carthage, since rural Tennessee is a hardly a hotbed of Hispanic America. It fits better in front of a New York crowd, but the real purpose of the Spanish to deliver a clip that can be played on Univision and Hispanic radio stations.
Gore’s New York speech seems especially dreary in contrast to the crowd’s lively street theater. Hecklers from the same group who disrupted Gore’s Carthage speech (as well as the Manchester town hall) shake up the New York rally, too, whistling and screaming and handing out their leaflets (HIV drugs for Africa) till they get arrested. As they shout, a tiny bearded guy by the press pen starts shouting, “Gore is an environmental phony!” It turns out that he’s an animal-rights activist, and he is soon engaged in a shouting match with another bearded guy, who’s holding an anti-Gore, pro-libertarian sign. Behind them is another bearded guy in a plaid shirt who yells, “You’re killing children,” when Gore praises the Kosovo operation. Flanking these three are two more bearded guys, one costumed as a sunflower, the other as a pea pod. Sunflower tells me that he’s an activist for community gardens. He’s hoping that Gore will expand them. Now that’s grassroots politics.
Photograph on Slate’s Table of Contents by Jeff Mitchell/Reuters.